21 of the Most Beautiful Designs in the World, According to Sagmeister and Walsh
“Beauty as the height of aesthetic achievement has fallen out of favor,” designers Stefan Sagmeister and Jessica Walsh declare in the intro to Beauty (2018), a book that is equal parts history, analysis, and visual splendor. In it, they argue that designers, artists, and architects no longer use beauty as the lodestar of their work, and often avoid the word altogether. “At one time a universal aspiration, the pursuit of beauty came to a crash landing at the beginning of the 20th century,” Sagmeister and Walsh write.
“We believe this rejection of beauty is utterly stupid,” they continue. “Beauty is the dose of humanity that makes our lives better.” The pair, darlings of the intersecting worlds of art, design, and culture—clients of their firm span Snapchat, Vitra, the Guggenheim, and the Olympic committee—lament how modernist principles have been diluted in contemporary design, where function is favored over individuality, resulting in a lack of diversity, or, in their words, “a psychotic sameness.”
In their sweeping treatise, Sagmeister and Walsh examine what beauty is. They ask: Who does beauty better, nature or humans? Do humans instinctively recognize it? (Science points to yes.) They distill beauty into features that theorists have agreed upon over time: “simplicity, symmetry, balance, clarity, contrast, and proportion.”
The book traces our pursuit and celebration of beauty back to the dawn of humanity, from the first tools—stone axes that had no reason to be symmetrical other than for aesthetic value—to ancient Greece, where beauty ruled art and philosophy, and to the transcendent experience of light and space in Islamic and Christian places of worship. Indeed, sublimity was the overarching aspiration in art and design up until the 20th century.
Following World War I, beauty became a crisis of conscience, the authors write: “If human beings could annihilate each other using killing machines, what role, if any, should beauty play in our lives?” Thus entered the anti-aesthetic period of ready-made art and the functionality of modernist architecture, as well as elevation of the commercial. Even today, Sagmeister and Walsh assert, companies like Facebook, Airbnb, and Etsy embrace uniformity of design.
So, what do they consider to be the most beautiful works in design history? The final section of the book is an archive of the objects, buildings, and graphic design compositions that they consider the most visually pleasing. Below, we share 21 of them, with Sagmeister and Walsh’s own words.
“Predictive Dream” (2010–14) by Katsuyo Aoki
Milan Cathedral (1386–1965)
“We vividly remember attending an Easter mass in this extraordinary Italian cathedral. The entire space was filled with incense smoke. The cone-hatted archbishop was followed by hundreds of bishops, priests, and altar boys, while the light of God streamed through giant windows. The spectacle felt like the start of an epic rock concert. The minds of peasants who made the journey to Milan a thousand years ago must have been blown to smithereens.”
Hasegawa Co. Poster (1985) by Makoto Saito
“This masterpiece was created by the Japanese star designer
Chauffeuse basse dite Kangourou (ca. 1955) by Pierre Jeanneret
San Marco Basilica (828–1094)
“The floor of Venice’s famed basilica is covered with the rarest marbles from the Eastern world. It is almost 1,000 years old, and we think a more beautiful floor has not been made since.”
City Palace, Jaipur, India (1729–32)
“During her honeymoon, Jessica traveled through Rajasthan. One of her favorite stops was City Palace in Jaipur, a palace complex built by Sawai Jai Singh II. The building is exquisitely decorated with mirror work, mosaics, intricate ornamentation, and paintings.”
Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (1705) by Maria Sibylla Merian
Meissen Porcelain Königlich-Sächsische Coffee Service (1880–90)
“The desire to go completely overboard with ornamentation and cover every square centimeter of this coffee set with designs inspired by nature may seem extreme, but we’ve always found extremism a rather juicy design strategy.”
Fallingwater (1935) by Frank Lloyd Wright
“Yes, yes, yes, we know, including such a classic in this list might seem a little banal. It’s just that it is truly so good.
La Muralla Roja (“The Red Wall”) (1973) by Ricardo Bofill
“La Muralla Roja is a housing complex designed by [Ricardo] Bofill in the Spanish town of Calpe. Inspired by the architecture of coastal North Africa, the striking colors, staircases, and platforms are reminiscent of an
Lime-Basil Triangulation, from Geometric Desserts (2015–17) by Dinara Kasko
“[Dinara] Kasko’s background in architecture, design, and 3D visualization influences her pastry art. These gorgeous geometric cakes are almost too beautiful to eat.”
Grammo-grafik, Kunstgewerbemuseum Zürich Poster (1957) by Gottlieb Soland
“A reduced, down-to-the-basics, classic piece from the 1950s that has been copied countless times and still proves influential today.”
Seed Cathedral, UK Pavilion, Shanghai World Expo (2010) by Thomas Heatherwick
“Even though it looks like an ethereal computer-generated rendering, it is, in fact, real.”
Algorithmic Modeling Cake, from Geometric Desserts (2015–17) by Dinara Kasko
“One more of Kasko’s delicious and gorgeous geometric pastries.”
Chand Baori, Jaipur (ca. 9th century)
“Throughout Rajasthan, there are many stepwells, ancient water wells that are reached by descending a complex series of steps. With 3,500 steps and more than 13 stories, Chand Baori, near Jaipur, is one of the most impressive. While the steps were built for utilitarian purposes, these Escher-esque wells are uniquely beautiful, especially when the light hits the steps, casting dramatic shadows.”
Mutual Vibration (2017) by Jonny Niesche
“Humans are biologically hardwired to find sunsets beautiful, and they respond similarly to gradients. abstract gradient pieces take advantage of this phenomenon; although simple, they are quite mesmerizing.”
“Segmentation Series” (2009–17) by Jiyong Lee
“ glass sculptures are not created from glassblowing or kilns but through a labor-intensive process of cutting, sanding, laminating, and carving. His attention to color and translucency, combined with meticulous craft, create a unique optical effect well worth his extensive effort.”
Blur Building (2002) by Diller Scofidio + Renfro
“The creation of a cloudlike building on a lake in Switzerland is a beautiful idea all by itself. The experience of walking through the structure, encountering various densities of fog, and sampling a wide selection of waters from around the world is gorgeous, too.”
Mirrorcube Treehotel (2010) by Tham & Videgård Arkitekter
“Designed by Tham & Videgård 40 miles south of the Arctic Circle in Sweden, this eco-hotel was built with a lightweight aluminum structure wrapped in mirrored glass and supported by a tree trunk in the center.”
Ombré Glass Chair (2017) by Germans Ermičs
“The Ombré Glass Chair was created by Latvian-born designer [Germans] Ermičs as a tribute to iconic Glass Chair (1976).”
Vases by Ettore Sottsass
“Italian architect and designer colorful and playful work has been described as ‘bizarre’ and ‘atrocious.’ Perhaps there is something wrong with our eyes, but we find it quite lovely; these would be welcome additions to our homes.”
Jacqui Palumbo is a Senior Editor at Artsy.
Excerpts from the book Beauty by Sagmeister & Walsh. © 2018 Phaidon Press Limited.